I settled down to read Danielle Steel’s Against All Odds with a wave of nostalgia. The American bestselling novelist had been a staple in my late teens, but this was going to be my first Steel in a very long time. I’d set the scene — a big bowl of popcorn, comfy blanket and a big mug of hot cocoa at the ready. I was excited. The premise seemed promising: a widowed mother trying to protect her children from making mistakes in life. It was relatable. Kate Madison could have been my mother, worrying that her progeny might someday go off the rails. I delved in.
First, I have to say that feisty Grandma Lou is hands down the best part of this novel. Easily the strongest character in the book, Lou is almost a sea of tranquillity amid the long string of bad decisions and upheavals that make up the storyline. Stylish owner of vintage clothing store Still Fabulous, Kate may be the novel’s central character, but I found myself waiting for appearances of her delightful globe-trotting septuagenarian mother.
Against All Odds
Author: Danielle Steel
Publisher: Pan Books
Price: Rs 399
The web page for Against All Odds explains that “Kate — loving, supportive and outspoken — can’t keep her children from playing against the odds”, and asks, “Can they be beaten?” Yes, this novel follows the family-in-trouble formula that, according to Wikipedia, has placed Steel among the top five best-selling authors of all time. But there’s something missing: the heightened sense of drama that marked many of the older Danielle Steel novels I had metaphorically inhaled in the past.
One problem is that the “odds” come off as contrived at best, and the writing seems phoned-in. The children make terrible choices; as does Kate herself, albeit briefly. Everyone seems to be intent on being with the wrong person.
Isabelle, the confident lawyer getting over heartbreak, delves into a train wreck of a relationship with client Zach Holbrook, cut-off trust-fund baby who refuses to grow up or get a job or even stop dealing drugs. Her sister, the shy fashion designer Julie, quits her job and moves across the country to be with a husband even her mother thinks is “too good to be true”, and Willie, Kate’s youngest son, appears so little that he’s barely more than a name in the background. Julie’s twin Justin, along with his partner Richard, struggles with the responsibilities of parenthood, but is by far the most sorted of Kate’s offspring. He knows what he wants and, despite a few false starts, gets there in the end.
Kate’s brief dalliance with the (very married, as she later finds out) French Bernard Michel is refreshing since it portrays a woman of a certain age as something more than just a mother and businesswoman.
However, these horrible partners — the deadbeat druggie manchild, the abusive future murderer and the cheat — come off as caricatures rather than rounded characters.
Also, these various tragedies, which should have been horrific, do not seem to overwhelm the characters at any point. In Kate’s case, this could be explained as strength: When her husband died, Kate had four small children and an incomplete education; she had had no time to fall apart. With the others, it just comes off as bland storytelling.
Moreover, the novel takes so long to get going that it seems to suddenly wake up and rush towards a climax, which does not really come. About a third into the book, I realised I was snacking more to get over the tedium, rather than to keep pace with the excitement. I’d begun to skim, rather than read. I plodded on. I had guessed the ending before my popcorn ran out, but still wanted to make sure that the comeuppance in my head matched that on the pages. It did. Kind of.